Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Memo to Jeff Bezos

Dear Jeff,

As 2008 comes to a close I find I'm less of a Kindle advocate than I was earlier in the year. My new iPhone is partially to blame. After all, it's one of the reasons I wrote this critical post on my other blog yesterday. It's not just about the iPhone though. Amazon is uniquely positioned to run away with the e-reader market, but the Kindle appears to be hampered by a lack of strategy and vision.

I'm not talking about the poor physical design; I'm way past the point of being critical there. No, what I'm talking about are five key issues that have caused me to abandon plans for a Kindle 2.0 purchase in 2009 (or whenever it comes out):

1. Proprietary Model -- Come on, Jeff. It's almost 2009 and you're locked in with this non-industry standard content format. Have you asked any publishers how hard it is for them to convert their content to your format, especially the books with illustrations, maps, code, etc.? Would it kill you to support the EPUB format?

2. Lack of an Innovative Content Pricing Model -- This one bugs me the most. OK, you've taken the bold step of offering most titles for $9.99. Hooray. That happened more than a year ago though and it's way past time to come up with some new, creative pricing models. How about a monthly all-you-can-eat program? Or a discount on the device if I promise to buy x books in the first 12 months? Have you considered bundling magazines or newspapers with books? What about all those physical books I've bought from you over the years? Why can't I get a discount on the Kindle editions of those titles? What about bundling Kindle editions with print books? The possibilities are endless but the offerings have been non-existent. Where's the vision here?

3. No Brick-and-Mortar Presence -- Sure, Amazon is the king of online commerce but I think an e-only Kindle approach is killing the Kindle's potential visibility. I can't tell you how many friends and family members I know who've never heard of the Kindle...and I'm talking about people who regularly shop on Amazon! OK, the retort here is that you're out-of-stock, so you don't need any more visibility (see item #5). I hope that's not how you feel though. You've got a product with mass appeal potential but you'll never get there if (a) they don't know about it and (b) they can't touch and test drive it.

4. High Price -- This ties in with #2 above but I think it's important to talk not only about content pricing models but the price of the device itself. You're probably tired of hearing it but you need to think more like the cell phone industry. Once you get those pesky inventory management issues resolved, find a way to sell the product for $100 or less. Strip out some features. That's OK, but as long as the price of entry is $300+ the Kindle will always be positioned as a quirky gadget for people with too much disposable income. And given current economic conditions, how many of your prospective customers would describe themselves as having too much disposable income?

5. Poor Inventory Management
-- I suppose I shouldn't care too much about this one, especially since I already have a Kindle, but I think it's a symptom of a larger problem. How do you manage to go out-of-stock two holiday seasons in a row?! Yeah, I know...Oprah's to blame, but didn't you see that coming? Others have said it was a ploy to flush through the existing inventory and start 2009 with the new version (Kindle 2.0). Whatever. Why is it that when Nintendo runs out of Wii's it generates even more buzz but when Amazon runs out of Kindles it reeks of incompetence?

Jeff, I'm a huge fan of Amazon and I still read from my Kindle each and every day. I have to admit that the iPhone and the rapidly growing number of books and book apps for it are starting to encroach in my "Kindle time" though. Now that I own both an iPhone and a Kindle I couldn't possibly recommend the latter to owners of the former. Why spend $300+ on a limited functionality device, especially with all the major flaws noted above?

I used to think Amazon could take their time and the Kindle could survive any number of missteps. The iPhone has changed the game though and Google's Android as well as a host of other knock-offs will ensure we'll never again be limited to just the apps/features that initially came on the phone. This can only hurt the Kindle's overall appeal. I hope you and your team have something truly remarkable in the works for Kindle 2.0. More of the same just won't cut it.

Thanks for listening to me,
(Yeah, I know Bezos will never see this, but it's New Year's Eve, so let me dream a bit, OK?)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Search Activity: Kindle vs. Sony Reader

Google Trends is one of my favorite analysis tools, and it's totally free. It can tell you how popular a search term is and it's particularly useful when comparing two or more related phrases.

Every so often I like to compare the phrase "Amazon Kindle" with "Sony Reader" to see who's winning the search battle. You can see for yourself by either clicking the image to the left or clicking here to see the full results on Google Trends.

No matter how you look at it, you'll notice two things. First, and it's old news, but the Kindle took an early but short-lived lead in search activity when it first hit the scene 13 months ago. It's been trailing the Reader ever since, but briefly surged back ahead earlier in the fourth calendar quarter, right about the time Oprah went ga-ga over it...which brings me to the second point: as we got further into the holiday shopping season, while Amazon has been out-of-stock, the Reader has opened up a huge lead over the Kindle in search activity.

If this metric is at all meaningful, and I tend to believe it is, Amazon just keeps shooting themselves in the foot with these poorly timed out-of-stock situations. Clearly there's a pretty strong (and growing) interest in the Sony Reader.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Kindles on Craigslist

The Kindle is still sold out on Amazon so where can you go to buy one? eBay and Craigslist, of course. I was poking around on Craigslist this morning and noticed some interesting pricing tendencies...

If you look in my home state of Indiana, you'll find people selling Kindles on Craigslist for $300-$400. That sounds fairly reasonable given the current situation. If you head out to the San Francisco area you'll find more of them available but the typical price goes up to $400-$500. But if you go to the home of the Kindle, Seattle, you'll see more up around $500 and even $600 (with a leather messenger bag).

Funny how the same device is valued at a higher resale price in the more expensive regions of the country. If I were in the market I'd head straight to the Craigslist site for Mississippi and have it shipped to me. Bad example...if you search for "Kindle" in the Gulfport/Biloxi area of Craigslist you come up empty...insert your own joke here... You get the point though.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

New Magazines...But Have You Heard of Them?!

Amazon is up to a whopping total of 20 magazines for the Kindle. 20. The device is more than a year old...all those magazines you see on newsstands and we can only get 20 of them for our Kindle?!

Here's a blog post about the two recent additions to the list. Have you ever heard of either of these? I haven't, and apparently neither have most people...despite their newness to the device, they're currently sitting in last and next-to-last place on the Kindle magazine list. Did I mention they're both priced higher than any of the Kindle edition magazines that typically sit in the top 5 slots (Newsweek, Reader's Digest, Time, MIT's Technology Review and The Atlantic)?

Will we ever see more of the mainstream, highly popular magazines in this service? I let my print BusinessWeek subscription expire with the hope that it would soon appear on the Kindle. I'm starting to lose hope. I just got a subscription offer for 25% less than the earlier offers BusinessWeek had been sending me...maybe it's time to swallow my pride, cough up the $30 and read it on dead trees again. Bummer.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Spanish Titles on the Kindle

I just noticed that the Spanish translation of William Young's wildly successful The Shack is currently #6 on the Kindle books list. #6! The title is La Cabana and sits ahead of blockbusters like American Lion, The Audacity of Hope and even the English language edition of The Shack itself, which is #7 on the same list.

I tend to think of the Kindle as an English-only success story but clearly there are quite a few people out there who prefer to read books in Spanish. This is the first Spanish title I've seen for the Kindle. Given how well it's selling I wonder how long it will take for Amazon to make translations of other bestsellers available...

Sunday, December 7, 2008

"The Kindle is DRM Agnostic"?

That's what Jeff Bezos supposedly said, according to this Medialoper post. This, from the CEO of the company who has built a pretty solid DRM (digital rights management) fortress around the least for Kindle content you buy from Amazon. The post goes on to say that, "publishers have the option of selling DRM-free eBooks for the Kindle and that he (Bezos) believes publishers might do just that once they become comfortable with the idea of digital content distribution."

Every Kindle product you buy off Amazon's site today comes tightly wrapped in DRM. I wonder how many people realize you can get DRM-free content for the Kindle from a variety of non-Amazon sources, including some well-known publishers. For example, my employer, O'Reilly Media, Inc., has been selling DRM-free ebook bundles since earlier this year. These bundles allow you to get all the popular formats in one transaction, at one very reasonable price. You say you'd like to buy the PDF version of a book but would also like to have one that looks nice on your Kindle? No problem, and we throw in EPUB format for good measure (at no additional charge). Good luck getting all those options from Amazon.

So if Bezos really feels Amazon should be more open and customer-friendly, why not offer the same model we do at O'Reilly? Wouldn't it be great if the next time you bought a title for your Kindle it also included the PDF and EPUB versions, all without DRM? Let's take it up a notch... The next time you buy a print book from Amazon, why shouldn't that purchase include DRM versions of all these e-formats as well?...

I hope Bezos realizes there are a number of publishers out there like O'Reilly who are already quite comfortable with the idea of digital content distribution. Now we need to eliminate DRM and come up with new, interesting distribution and pricing models to helps expand our industry, not sit around complaining about how the old model is drying up.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Why I'm Cancelling My Kindle Time Magazine Subscription

It only costs me $1.49/month but it bugs me. I'm talking about the Time magazine subscription for my Kindle. I eagerly signed up for it several months ago because I used to have a print subscription and let it lapse. I always enjoyed reading Time but decided it wasn't crucial. But for $1.49/month I figured how could I go wrong?

It's not how I've gone wrong, but rather how Time has gone wrong. Their presentation of the content on the Kindle is embarrassingly poor. Going into it I knew there would be some print content that wouldn't make it into the Kindle edition and I was OK with that. What I wasn't expecting was the awful formatting and complete lack of personality that seems to come through in the Kindle version. It's like trying to read a bad RSS feed. I'm talking about awkward line wraps, figure/image callouts that appear in the wrong place and disrupt the reading experience, etc.

I tried to overlook this at first but I've gotten so tired of it that I haven't even bothered to open the last 4 or 5 issues. I found myself wondering why I should pay anything for something I'm not using and I don't enjoy reading.

This is an important lesson for all magazine publishers considering the Kindle. I want to encourage more Kindle magazine options but please, please, don't force it. Make sure your content ports well to the Kindle format.

Now I'm off to Amazon's site to once again figure out how to cancel a subscription. Could they make it any harder?!